Students unite for worker justice

Photo courtesy of Zev Bliss

United Students Against Sweatshops raises awareness about UC cleaning staff

Sarah Hojsak

sahojsak@ursinus.edu

Monday morning, stacks of brightly colored construction paper and markers fill a table in Lower Wismer. Greeting students that approach the table, Ursinus junior Zev Bliss explains the initiative to write thank you cards for members of the cleaning staff.

Organized by United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), the cards are intended to help build a relationship between students and the cleaning staff, a group that is often forgotten by the Ursinus community.

Students are encouraged to write words of gratitude for the work the cleaning staff contributes to everyday life at Ursinus. Bliss compiled a list of Spanish phrases to make students’ messages more easily accessible to Spanish-speaking members of the cleaning staff.

“For the entirety of the cleaning staff, Spanish is their first language,” Bliss, a core group member of USAS, explained.

Bliss described USAS’s mission of the thank you cards. “We are doing this specifically to reach out to students and build a sense of community between cleaning staff workers and our student body,” he said.

He also stressed their goal of inclusivity. As Ursinus does not directly hire its cleaning staff, it can become easy to forget that they are also members of the community.

“It’s easy to sort of alienate them, essentially because they do work we typically see as not valuable,” Bliss said. “It’s really important for us [USAS] that we view the cleaning staff as people and that we build a community with them, and show that we’re committed to caring about them and valuing them.”

According to USAS president Sam Wanta, “Our goal as USAS is to build a truly inclusive campus community that includes even our most forgotten-about individuals.”

Bliss explained that USAS sees conditions for many campus workers, especially the cleaning staff, as less than ideal. “They’re subject to discrimination and harassment… and they deserve better. They deserve to be seen as part of the community and valued as such,” he said.  

According to Bliss, USAS has been in communication with the Ursinus administration about issues that affect the cleaning staff.

The administration has informed USAS that they will strive to take these issues seriously. However, because the cleaning company Olympus is not affiliated with Ursinus, responsibility for these issues does not rest on the college’s administration.

USAS believes that in order to avoid these issues, Ursinus should directly hire members of the cleaning staff rather than relying on an outside company.

USAS strives to secure fair working conditions for the cleaning staff regardless of the college’s legal responsibility to do so. “Ursinus must hold itself accountable for the well-being of each person who is a part of this campus,” Wanta said.

With programs like the making of thank you cards, Bliss said, “We’re trying to build student awareness of the cleaning staff and of the problems that they face … so we can try to change those things and make it better for them.”

Though USAS is currently working towards worker justice on the Ursinus campus, Bliss explained that the issues that the Ursinus chapter of the national student-led organization tackles have broader implications. “We are focusing on our campus workers, but labor is an international issue and a national issue as well,” he said.

The Ursinus chapter of USAS holds the ultimate goal of institutional change. While their current efforts focus on ensuring that the cleaning staff is seen as equals within the Ursinus community, Bliss said this would be “impossible without creating institutional change.”

After attending regional and national USAS conferences, the group’s members are prepared to organize more events on campus this year.

“It was really informative and taught us a lot about organizing, and how important it was that we do things like this,” Bliss said. “It was a snapshot of what campus organizing looks like nationally.”

USAS also hopes to work with other social justice organizations on campus, such as FIA, ALMA, and SUN. “We would like to form a coalition of other justice-based organizations, because we know that all of the issues we’re talking about are connected,” Bliss said.

“The issue of unsafe or unfair labor conditions is a racialized issue, it’s a gendered issue,” Bliss said. “Everything we’re doing is connected to everything that other groups are doing, and we want to have more voice, more power.”

USAS will be hosting the card- making table each day this week until Thursday, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day.

Students who want to get involved with USAS can visit their facebook page or contact Bliss at zebliss@ursinus.edu.